Recipes inspired by a long winter of sitting around waiting for the snow to melt!
So, does anyone remember how back when I started this blog, I said I was going to work my way through The Food Journal of Lewis and Clark? I really did intend on that being a regular feature, but then life happened and I got a job, and then a better job, and so on and so forth, and the cast and crew of the blog kind of... exploded. Which made doing a monthly or even a bimonthly feature on one character kind of impossible.
But I didn't forget about the cookbook, or my intentions to do more of the recipes in it! Actually, the ones I'm about to share with you today I've been wanting to do for a long, long time. When I first got the cookbook and flipped through it, they stood out to me and I always meant to set some time aside to try them out. And then kept putting it off, and putting it off, and putting it off...
When the Corps of Discovery finally made it to the Pacific Ocean, they couldn't just turn around and go home. Traveling back over the mountains of Eastern Oregon and the rest of the Pacific Northwest and West would have been suicide, and they didn't make it all the way to the opposite coast only to die on the way home. After moving a little farther south from their original position, Lewis and Clark decided to hold a vote about where they'd be spending their winter in modern day Oregon, and nearly everyone decided they should move to explore an area south of the Columbia River, as recommended by the local Clatsop Indians. This vote was not only significant in deciding the ongoing fate of the Corps, but also because everyone in the party was allowed to vote, including York, a Black slave and Sacagawea, a Native woman. Pretty progressive, for 1805!
When they found a suitable place to make a fort, they decided to call it Fort Clatsop after the Native people who gave them the idea in the first place. Although conditions were as comfortable as could be expected, remember that meant log cabins and open fires. Not exactly a stay at a nice hotel! It rained almost all the time, and to be blunt, things just got boring. They were settled there from December to March, and at that point had already been spending an enormous amount of time together. In an era before smartphones and television, the best way to kill time was to go hunting, or catch up on the ecological journals you'd promised the president you'd bring back with you.
Even the food was boring. Remember, this was winter, they'd already used a good portion of their supplies and still needed more for the return trip home, so there wasn't a lot to choose from to help spice up a diet that rapidly consisted of elk, elk, elk, and more elk. One way they helped get some variety in their diet came from trading with the local Native families, who gave the expedition members dried salmon.
The chowder is incredibly simple to make, and all of the ingredients are things the Corps would have had access to at one point or another, even if some of the vegetables might have been hard to come by. They're also ingredients that Kaya would have grown up enjoying, and I definitely think she'd enjoy this soup.
(It's not really thick enough to be considered a stew.)
I took four cups of chicken stock and brought it to a boil. Then, I added one diced small onion, one peeled and cubed sweet potato (it should weigh about two pounds), a cup of sliced fennel and 1/4 of a pound of smoked salmon to the pot, and brought it back up to a boil, adding salt and pepper for flavoring. I reduced the heat, and let it cook, covered, for 25 minutes on medium low heat.
As a note, my smoked salmon came in a packet with a lot of juices. Like, a lot of them, and most of it ended up in my pan. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but it definitely made the dish saltier and fishier than some people might like.
After 25 minutes, everything was cooked through and ready to enjoy! The recipe says you should garnish with some fennel fronds, so don't throw yours away when you're cleaning and preparing it to go in the pot.
The biscuits... were a little more complicated.
The biscuit recipe was inspired by a notation Clark made in his journal saying that Sacagawea made him some bread out of flour that had "unfortunately" gotten a little wet and sour. He said it actually tasted pretty good when it was cooked, especially because he hadn't had bread in a couple months, and while we don't have anything close to the exact recipe for Sacagawea's bread, the description does make it sound a lot like a sourdough bread or biscuit we'd eat today.
The reason this got a little complicated for me was because this was a classic example of "read your recipes first, Gwen!" It turns out these biscuits don't just taste kind of like sourdough bread, they use an actual sourdough starter, much like a roll would! The starter needs to sit for 24 hours before you can use it, and I didn't realize this until I jumped right in expecting to be able to eat them for lunch. Spoilers: that didn't happen.
Instead, I pushed my schedule back a bit and added one packet of active dry yeast to 2 cups of warm water. I let it stand for ten minutes, and then added 2 cups of flour to the mixture, mixing it all together and transferring it to a much larger bowl to sit. I covered it with clingwrap, but left a small hole so the yeast could still breathe while it sat.
This is supposed to sit for a full day or two before you can use it. When I checked on it in the first few hours, it always looked a bit puffy and like it had risen since the last time I looked at it. As directed, I stirred it occasionally and just kept an eye out to make sure my little dough monster hadn't tried to escape the bowl or died on me. You could definitely smell it fermenting!
The next morning, the starter looked a lot less puffy, a lot more watery, and had decreased in volume pretty drastically. Out of curiosity, I tasted it and discovered it tasted like extremely bready beer, which is more or less what I was expecting, but still gross. I don't like beer.
Now, if you're making these properly, you take 1/4 of a cup of the starter (the recipe will leave you with plenty of leftovers), 1/2 of a cup of flour and 1/2 of a cup of warm water and mix it all together. You're supposed to cover this with a clean towel and set it aside for at least eight hours.
I decided I didn't want to wait and just pressed on. Sure, I'd lose a lot of the fluffiness, but I'm on a schedule and didn't want to be delayed any further. I really can only cook and take pictures on the weekends, so stuff needed to get done.
I mixed everything together and then added two teaspoons of brown sugar to the mixture.
In a separate bowl, I mixed my dry ingredients - 1 cup of flour, 1/2 of a cup of whole wheat flour, 1/2 of a teaspoon of baking powder, and 1/4 of a teaspoon each of salt and baking soda - and then added them to the wet ingredients. My dough was pretty dry and not really absorbing the flour correctly because I hadn't let the wet ingredients sit and presumably rise a bit, so I added in some more starter to improvise.
Once everything was worked in, I kneaded it a little and rolled out the dough to be about 1/4 of an inch thick and started cutting out biscuits.
The recipe says to re-roll the dough only once and then throw the scraps in the baking dish with the rest of the biscuits. My cutter made 18 biscuits with enough room for 4 little misshapen ones.
You load your biscuits into 9 inch baking pans that have had a tablespoon of butter melted in them and drizzled over the bottom. These cook in the oven at 375 for about 25 minutes, or until they sound hollow when you tap them and look golden brown.
Note that mine look pretty flat, but they still tasted good with the chowder!
I liked the chowder the first night I had some, but the leftovers kind of reminded me a little too much of my cat's cat food. Something about letting it sit over night in the fridge just made it taste a little too fishy to me. I think next time, I'll try to keep the juice of the smoked salmon from getting in the broth. Might help with the flavor, and keep it less salty! Still, it definitely felt like an authentic dish, and I could totally see Lewis and Clark enjoying a bowl of this over a warm fire. The recipe's easy enough for a bunch of guys with no culinary experience to throw together and enjoy a break from the all elk diet, so you can definitely pull it off and enjoy a taste of history, too.
The biscuits were another story. While they weren't as fluffy as they could have been and weren't quite as sourdough flavored as I expected, they were yummy. The book recommends serving them with honey or butter, and man, drizzling honey on them when they were still hot from the oven definitely hit the spot. I saved the starter, too - you can put it in the fridge and take it out again when you're ready to make more biscuits, and if you keep feeding the yeast with more water and flour, you'll have your very own mother dough to take care of. It's like a weird blobby pet you keep in your fridge! Now that I've got the starter ready to go, I'd like to try making them the legitimate way and see if they gt fluffier when you let the dough sit for the extra eight hours. I bet they'll taste delicious!
The Corps of Discovery left Fort Clatsop in March of 1806, but you can still go there yourself! It's not the original of course - that was gifted to a chief of the Clatsop tribe when they first left and became an important part of the fur trade before falling into disrepair. A reconstruction was built in 1955, but burned down in 2005. The reconstruction of the reconstruction still stands, and is managed by the National Parks Service as Lewis and Clark National Historic Park. I've never been (I foolishly insisted I'd rather see Oregon City instead while we were in Oregon looking at colleges for my sister), but my parents visited when they helped my sister move into school. They said they did a neat job of recreating the fort, had some cool replicas of the clothes they would have worn, and enjoyed seeing the dog reenactor portraying Seaman, Lewis' dog. He hosts story time with kids who visit the park! They also visited their salt works and where the Corps found a dead whale on the beach. If you're ever in or near Astoria, you should definitely check it out.
Until then, you can get a taste of what it's like impatiently waiting for spring with this chowder and be grateful that you're not living in a leaky log cabin.
I know I sure am!